berkeley food #21: rivoli

1539 Solano Ave
Berkeley, CA
(510) 526-2542

Tonight I had the pleasure of eating for the first time at Rivoli, a gem of a restaurant on Solano, a strip with plenty of food and shopping that we haven’t explored much because it’s more than walking distance from our apartment. I don’t know how this place slipped under the radar for so long, but luckily someone more knowledgeable than I about Berkeley food pointed it out to me.

The layout of the restaurant is a bit unconventional. It’s tiny, so you walk right into a combination bar/waiting area/service prep room. You’re greeted by warm lighting, well selected but unobtrusive jazz and blues, and a very friendly and accommodating staff. You walk right through the service area to get back to the main dining room, which is maybe 30 feet on a side at most. The entire back wall is filled with windows which look out onto a well-kept garden–word has it that you’ll see raccoons and skunks frolicking back there, though all we saw was a hungry-looking but cute cat.

The food was inventive and unusual, not at all forbidding, and universally tasty. To start we had the “signature” appetizer of portabella mushroom fritters with a├»oli, parmesan, arugula and caper vinaigrette, as well as Grilled scallops and dungeness crab in phyllo with ginger relish, avocado, cucumber, watermelon radish and saffron yogurt. The first was simple, but delicious. The mushrooms held a lot of their water which helped to offset the heaviness of the fried breading, as did the bed of greens they sat on. The scallops were heavenly in my opinion: nice and rich (made even more so by the shredded crab they were surrounded by), made light by the cucumber, creamy by the avocado, and finally given a bit of zing by the yogurt.

As usual, for entrees we shared four different dishes. My pick was the slow cider braised pork roast stuffed with wild mushrooms, served with sweet potato gnocchi, braised tuscan kale and pink lady apple and walnut vinaigrette. All four parts of the dish were good, but I need to especially call out the gnocchi as the best I’ve ever had. It had all the great taste I expect from good gnocchi, but it was light and fluffy, and not pasty at all as gnocchi tends to be. I think Les put it best when she said it was as though this was the true Platonic form of gnocchi, and all my life previously I had been eating only the shadows it cast on the cave walls. Ahem. Second was cassoulet of duck leg confit, chicken sausage and ham hock with runner beans, tomato, thyme, garlic and breadcrumbs. While delicious, this was probably the least interesting dish. Hearty and fall-like, but a bit heavy (there was more left over if it than anything else). Marc got the grilled mint and garlic marinated leg of lamb with artichoke, bacon and scallion bread pudding, braised cippolini onions and french beans with lemon. This was your straightforward red-meat dish, cooked well, seasoned well, and simply presented. There was some spice involved that reminded the two licorice sensitive palates at the table (mine was one) of anise, but we confirmed with the waiter that there was none. Finally was Leslie’s butternut squash and chestnut torta with pecans, oyster mushrooms, braised rainbow chard, pearl onions, fonduta, red wine sauce and salsa verde. It tasted as complicated as it sounds–if I worked at it, I could pick out all of the distinct pieces, but that wasn’t really necessary; the flavors fell in well together. In all the choices were seasonal, creative, and not at all pretentious or meager as is sometimes the fear with “upscale” food.

For dessert the four of us shared an utterly perfect hot-fudge sundae, and then staggered out the door, bellies full from the dinner (which capped off a day full of tasting of caterers’ food). I think this place is right up there with the cafe at Chez Panisse (and it’s worth saying that we got a table without having to plan a month ahead), and in the same ballpark price-wise ($20ish entrees), so it’s a place I’ll only see on my birthday or when parents are in town, but that being said, it was worth every penny (that I didn’t have to spend). Yum!

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